14.09.2012 - 19.09.2012 22 °C
Back on the European continent after our Sydney detour, looking for distractions, we arrived in France with a map in hand, hire car for the week and a desire to soak up the last of the Euro summer on the French Mediterranean. Being France, our days were carefully orchestrated around food – brunch, coffee stops, mid-afternoon treats, late dinners…. bon appétit indeed!
We enjoyed our time travelling around the southern French countryside, which rivals Italy in the ‘pretty town’ stakes, stopping in at places that looked interesting along the way. This was how we discovered the delightful little town of Fort Liberia, literally enclosed within a fort. As we drove toward it we were impressed by the high concrete walls and turrets, but were completely surprised to discover a fully functioning town within. Shops, restaurants, people going about their daily activities. It was time for a sweet treat anyway so we topped up our supplies before we hit the road again.
Putting our French pursuits aside for a day (and simply because we could!) we took a detour en route to the coast from the city of Toulouse and drove south to the tiny country of Andorra, the sixth smallest nation in Europe with a population just under 90,000. Situated on the border between France and Spain it covers 468 square kilometres - for perspective, it is about 1/5 of the size of ACT! The drive through the Pyrenees Mountains toward the capital Andorra la Vella was beautiful, with too many hairpin turns to count as the road zig-zagged back and forth over the mountain ridge.
The region is very popular in winter of course as a ski destination, and in the summer for hiking. We were not feeling the desire for hiking, but a ride on one of the world’s longest toboggan runs was definitely in order! Stretching over five kilometres it was great fun, not to mention we had amazing views on our way down where for a brief few minutes we experienced joie de vivre as we raced down the mountain.
Driving in France is so easy, albeit expensive with the toll charges, and having the freedom to stop in towns along your path can turn up some interesting treasures. In the little city of Arles in the Provence region we came across a Roman amphitheatre right in the middle of town, creating a feeling of déjà vu as we likened the discovery to coming across the Colosseum in Rome. Built in 90 AD to provide an arena for entertainment it was capable of seating 20,000, and is used today for bull fighting (yes in France!) and plays and concerts in the summer.
Orange too was a great place to stop on our journey, especially for a crêpe and coffee in the late afternoon! Crêpes aside, Orange was also home to a beautifully preserved Roman theatre, also right in the middle of town. That is one of the things we love about travelling through Europe – modern towns and cities are built around the most fascinating and historical sites. This theatre dates back to the 1st century AD also and is billed as the best preserved Roman theatre in Europe. It is still used for theatrical and operatic productions and the acoustics are said to be virtually perfect.
No doubt the highlight of our French escapades though was our trip to Carcassonne, a medieval town in the south half way between Toulouse and the coast. The UNESCO listed town stands on a site that is thought to have been occupied since the 6th century BC however it was not until the end of the 13th century AD that the town looked definitively like a medieval fortress. Perfectly contained within the city walls were gorgeous sweet shops, quaint bars and restaurants and a maze of laneways and staircases. It was almost as if we had been reduced in size and left to run around our own toy fortress.
After buying nougat and sweets to take with us for later, it was on to the important task of selecting which of the dozens of restaurants would provide us with the perfect French meal to complement our magical surroundings. We picked a winner enjoying a three course meal that included the most amazing duck cassoulet, our best crème brûlée of the trip, and was of course accompanied by French bubbles. So nice to be in a country where you can simply ask for champagne!
It wasn’t all forts and medieval towns though, for three days we set up camp at Cap d’Agde on the French Mediterranean where we got in some beach time and a few lazy days out of the car. When we arrived the marina area was crawling with people snatching the last few days of summer before everyone disappeared and it was just us and a few international tourists wandering around. Agde is not our favourite place along the French coastline (St Tropez and Cannes where we holidayed last year further along the coast are certainly more glossy with far greater restaurant options) but it still has a certain charm and the sun setting over the yachts was pretty spectacular.
Our sojourn in France, although brief, reminded us again how much we enjoy travelling in this country. Yes the road tolls are expensive, and it can be difficult to interpret an entire menu with our limited French, but the beautiful vistas, the lovely cities and towns and of course the food will keep us returning to France for years to come. Vive la France!